Opening the Gates to Dharma
Buddhist Landscape in America
In this issue, we investigate the Buddhist landscape in America, reporting on a survey conducted in mid-2021 by Dharma College in Berkeley, California. The survey looked at some novel things that are happening in American Buddhism; the impact of highly successful mindfulness programs; and which sectors of the population might be more receptive to the teachings of the Buddha. We also mourn the passing of two great Buddhist masters, the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022) and the Vidyadhara Dodrupchen Rinpoche (1927-2022).
Image above: Vajrasattva, by Yachi Tseng
“For those who care about the Buddha’s teachings, Thich Nhat Hanh’s passing is an especially heavy loss. In this modern world, an ancient wisdom like Buddhism finds it so difficult to reach out to people who were born into cultures that have no notion of aniccā, duḥkha, anattā, and nirvana. How can people today be encouraged, at the very least, to move closer to an appreciation of these ideas, let alone generate the wish to live by them?”
— Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, on the loss of venerable Thich Nhat Hanh.
Sponsored by Khyentse Foundation and conducted by Dharma College, the aim of the survey of the Buddhist landscape in America was to collect and compile existing research and materials, and it focused on four areas:
· Buddhist chaplaincy
· Mindfulness groups in corporate settings
· Lay Buddhists and the shifting religious landscape
· University contemplative centers
Did you know that:
· Less than 1% of the population of North America identifies as Buddhist. Yet many Buddhist values such as simplicity, naturalness, calm, and focus have entered popular culture, and Buddhist symbolism is widely present in the health and well-being industry.
· Of the 2,300 Buddhist organizations in the United States, about 50% are Mahayana, 30% are Vajrayana, and 20% are Theravadin.
· 50% of North Americans do not consider themselves to be part of a religious community. Many identify as spiritual but not religious, and distance themselves from organized religion.
· According to a recent study by Pew Charitable Trusts, about two-thirds of Buddhists in the United States are Asian-American. This group has experienced the biggest loss (8%) due to religious switching.
· Google has a bimonthly “mindful” lunch, during which employees eat in silence. Thich Nhat Hanh started this company practice in 2011.
The survey confirmed many of our observations and identified areas where organizations such as Khyentse Foundation, Dharma College, and other like-minded organizations can focus efforts to promote and spread Buddha’s wisdom in more effective ways. Here are some important findings.
· Buddhist chaplaincy is a growing field, with many opportunities to support chaplaincy training and materials.
· Massive open online courses (MOOCs) could be a way to systematically offer wisdom teachings to large audiences.
· Spiritual but not religious (SBNR) describes many young people who are abandoning formal religion but are open to developing a spiritual life. They are a potential target group for wisdom teachings.
· Buddhist apps are far behind apps for mindfulness and other religions, in both quality and popularity.
· There are about 2,300 Buddhist organizations in the United States, which offers an opportunity to create a central voice for Buddhism.
· University contemplative centers and other multidisciplinary projectsthat incorporate Buddhist ideas into education, science, and psychology are potential partners.
Image: Koshin Paley Ellison from New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care,
photo by Tobias Klutke for Lion’s Roar.
Mapping Buddhist Chaplaincy
Although chaplaincy was originally a Christian tradition, it now includes interreligious training and standards from other traditions. Today, chaplains work in interfaith environments, offering support to people of a variety of faith backgrounds. Chaplaincy works in diverse fields, offering spiritual care in hospice, health care, the military, prisons, and disaster relief, and also in professional and business environments.
Buddhist chaplaincy is relatively new, so there are very few statistics at this point. Last June, Harvard Divinity School produced a first-of-its-kind study of Buddhist chaplaincy to answer some fundamental questions about this new professional field. Click here for more information. Read more about Buddhist chaplaincy here.
The SBNR Approach
“Spiritual but not religious” is a phrase that describes people who don’t regard organized religion or a particular institution as the best means of spiritual growth. In a 2020 study by Fetzer Institute, almost half of the people identified as SBNR have left the religion they grew up with. With fewer people gathering in religious institutions, other trends are rising:
· Growth of faith mindfulness platforms
· Intentional groups and movements
· New-age and nondual teachers.
Read more about SBNR: Spiritual Free Agents: The Buddhists of Gen Z
Gen Z has been called the “least religious generation,” but their story is still being written. Kevin Singer reports on why some Gen Zers are drawn to Buddhism and the findings of Springtide Research Institute’s survey The State of Religion and Young People.
Image: Dharma College, Berkeley, California, USA
Reimagining Wisdom for Modern Times
By Wangmo Dixey, Executive Director, Dharma College, Berkeley
It took walking the streets of downtown Berkeley, where Dharma College is located, and where I grew up, to begin to reimagine how we could open the gates of Dharma wide enough for the general public to discover the great wisdom lineages. We wanted to appeal to everyone, whether the people who came through our doors or joined our online classes were from the startup community or the neurosciences, or were artists, lawyers, or students, or were simply interested lay householders. Our new role was to flip our familiar traditions into a secular world where Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha were terms that very few understood, and where monks and nuns were curiosities rather than a feature of the cultural landscape.
As Dharma College has developed, it has become our mission to make the insights of the Buddhadharma readily available to as many people as possible. Through the continued patronage of Khyentse Foundation, especially in the brilliant light of a great wisdom master like Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, we see ever more clearly that such a vision is possible.
Why did we change our Dharma College strapline to Reimagine Wisdom? We did this because we realized that our labeling and the persistence of our conceptual ways of thinking was narrowing the scope of the profound teachings we had received and limiting their appeal. We realized that we could use a little reimagination!
Over the past couple of years, we have worked to clarify our mission at Dharma College, finding new ways to translate ancient wisdom into everyday life. None of our classes use traditional Buddhist language, but arise from the ancient wellsprings of Buddhist Indian thought. We have combined these with a co-working facility, opening an interface with the business community, many of whose members yearn for a way of living that offers more heart and meaning in our rapidly developing world. We are also working to develop an understanding of the contemporary environment in which the Buddhadharma finds itself, and so were delighted to engage with KF in preparing the survey of the Buddhist landscape in North America, and learning from what it revealed.
Image: Wangmo, and the Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff,
at the lamp offering ceremony at the White House on Vesak Day 2021
Although survey data is not so readily available for other regions of the world, it seems clear that the conclusions are much the same. What emerged is that these uncertain times provide perfect conditions to discover what is holding us back from an ever-available freedom, while at the same time there is a deep suspicion of organized religion and institutional structures. However, the expressions of Buddha’s teachings have always been highly adaptable, adopting different forms in every society they entered in ancient times. Now that very genius for change allows us to use whatever circumstances we encounter as an opportunity for growth, as we begin to manifest the extraordinary potential of being. As we come to understand the mind and self more deeply, we can open awareness, engage more closely with experience, and find a rich source for inner development.
This evolving mission governs all of our work here at Dharma College. As both a place for learning and as a community of those who share similar interests, Dharma College is creating a vibrant environment, a place for work and serious inner and outer study. After all, inviting wisdom into our lives depends on our taking the first step when the right conditions arise. Now, through a strong partnership with Khyentse Foundation, we have an opportunity to reach the spiritual but not religious community, an audience that is a feature of our modern times. We have lots to do in these uncharted waters, and we wish to thank Rinpoche for his confidence and trust in our work. Please look at our new website to find out what we are doing and to see the schedule of our classes throughout the year: www.dharma-college.com.
Wangmo Dixey, born in Berkeley, California, is the eldest daughter of Venerable Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche. In addition to her role as director of Dharma College, she is also the executive director of the Light of Buddhadharma Foundation International and president of the International Buddhist Association of America. She holds a BA in International Relations from UCLA and an MA in International Development from American University.
In Other News
– Application for Khyentse Foundation Trisong Grant opens from March 1 to March 31.
– 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha has transitioned to a brand new WeChat account; the old account will no longer be updated. Please follow the new account by searching for “Buddha_words_84000” and continue to receive the latest news. You can also scan the QR code to find 84000’s new WeChat account.
– Join Rinpoche’s online teaching on The Good Eon, a newly translated sūtra by 84000, on March 5 at New York 8am, Berlin 2pm and Singapore 9pm.
– Preorder The Sakya Jetsunmas: The Hidden World of Tibetan Female Lamas by Elisabeth Benard, a KF Ashoka grantee, to be released by Shambhala Publications this March during Women’s History month.